Saturday, April 6, 2013
Young Evangelicals, Biblical Authority, and Ecclesial Authority
The Most Pressing Challenge for the Society of Christ
I have often argued that the root of sin itself is located in the illicit desire, on the part of Adam and his progeny, for absolute autonomy. I am convinced that the act of rebellion by our first parents and our subsequent acts of rebellion are ineradicably related to a fundamental desire for comprehensive and unqualified independence. In addition, I am convinced this desire is not eradicated at regeneration. Hence, I am committed to the idea that the fiercest battle that we face as believers is not located out there in the world someplace. To the contrary, I am convinced it is within. In fact, I am convinced that the most intense battle that every believer faces is related to our demand for independence as opposed to God’s demand for absolute, unconditional surrender of all that we are. If I am right, then it logically follows that one of the most pernicious threats to the Christian community is the threat of the individual desire for unmitigated autonomy on the part of most of its confessors. By nature, autonomy finds itself at odds with the idea of submission to authority and hence it naturally repels from the idea of Christian unity. In other words, unity is not as natural for the Christian as we would like because of the rebellious nature of fallen human autonomy. It is even more foreign to those born and raised in radical autonomous Western cultures. This state of affairs has created significant issues within the body, especially as it pertains to orthopraxy, orthodoxy, and leadership. Therefore, one of the biggest problems confronting the Church is not abortion; it is not gay marriage; it isn’t gun control; and it isn’t socialism. One of the Church’s most serious threats is the presence of young men and women who are in the Christian community confessing a belief system that they really do not understand nor embrace, in thought and unquestionably, not in practice. The purpose of this blog is to provide an evanescent argument to that end. My point is simple: the crisis of modern Christianity is a crisis of authority, top to bottom. While the crisis is discernible in countless expressions, each one can be traced to the root of autonomy. The young generation wants nothing to do with anything authoritative that they themselves did not approve. Hence, unless they have the final say, and are the final arbiter of authority, it simply cannot stand.
My focus is on two sources of authority and one aspect of submission. First, I will look at ecclesial authority and examine briefly how Christ structure His Church and how orthodoxy has historically understood that structure. Next, I will review the authority of Scripture and propensity of young evangelicals to question even the most sacred doctrines of the Church. I will also expound on the hypocritical claim that such inquiries come with pure motives bound up in a sincere desire for truth. Finally, I will spend my last few paragraphs on what it really means to be a disciple, a devoted student (from the Mediterranean aspect) in terms of humility, teachability, and submission. In other words, God’s Word has specific instructions for the young people within the Christian community and they need to hear what He has to say. I also need to point out that participation within the Christian community is a tremendous blessing and a profound privilege. It is not a right or an entitlement, nor is it a club that desperate seeks your membership fees. The demand of participation is that we walk in a manner worthy of the Holy God who called us out of darkness into His glorious light.
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. In this famous passage, we find Jesus’ expression and idea for the authority given to His Church. While only the apostles were given legislative and judicial authority, the Church at large has been granted judicial authority. “The binding in Matt. 16:19 and 18:18 recalls the Heb. ‘āsar which denotes both teaching authority (to determine what is forbidden) and disciplinary power (to place under a ban).” [Meding & Muller, NIDNTT, V-I, 171] The apostles, as Christ’s special delegates, would receive distinct authority from Christ concerning what the messianic community must confess and what values she must embrace. It is apparent that Christ has a very specific purpose for His Church and He establishes a very specific structure in order to preserve, protect, and execute that purpose. This authority was not to be abused, nor was it an isolated or independent authority. The authority was derivative from and valid when it adhered to the authority of Christ’s word. It is clear from this passage that Christ put in place a standard, and that confessors of the faith were expected to submit to that standard. Moreover, it is clear that the Church, the messianic community has authority to enforce this standard. She is expected to ensure that the confessing members of the body conduct themselves within the confines of that standard. If a “confessing member” refuses to submit to the standard, the community must act to excommunicate that member in order to preserve Christ’s idea of community.
The true Church of Jesus Christ is characterized by unity of truth and holiness of living. Under unity of truth is unity around gospel proclamation and the apostolic tradition preserved through the sacred writings of the New Testament.
The story of Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference provides yet another example of the authority of the Church. The controversy was about belief as much as it was about practice. In order to solve the issue, the leaders came together and authoritative leaders of the community consulted the sole authority over the community, sacred Scripture. There can be little doubt that the conclusion of this counsel and its written instructions carried absolute authority of all the members of the messianic community. Can you imagine what the reaction of Paul or Peter or James would have been if some of the young members demanded that we revisit the issues and refused to obey the leaders’ instructions? What post-modern philosophy often extols as a virtue, God condemns as rebellion and idolatry of the heart.
In Acts 20:28 the presence of structure and authority are impossible to miss. It was these bishops, elders, overseers that Paul issued his command that they must preside over the souls of men with great care and due caution. Such a task would be nigh impossible in an environment like the one we see in modern American and Western cultures where people feel as free as God Himself to think, to do, and to go about life as they please without a care or even a hint of submission.
In 1 Corinthians 5, we experience Paul’s displeasure with a community that was obviously negligent in her duty to preserve purity within her membership. A sexual act and a forbidden marriage was underway and the Church, rather than respond with reprehension, rejoiced in grace and freedom. In so doing, she failed to enforce the standards Christ had established for the messianic community and Paul, the leader, was swift to act. The couple would be excommunicated from the group and this action was required immediately upon reading Paul’s communication. The matter was that serious. Can you imagine young evangelicals being subjected to this sort of absolute authority in our culture? I wonder how they would react.
Tertullian wrote, “I must here likewise prescribe, properly be proved in no other way than by those very churches which the apostles founded in person, by declaring the gospel to them directly themselves, both vivâ voce, as the phrase is, and subsequently by their epistles. If, then, these things are so, it is in the same degree manifest that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches—those moulds14 and original sources of the faith must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the (said) churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, Christ from God.”
Apostolic authority, teaching, and tradition come down to us through the text of Scripture. The Scripture is the authoritative preaching of the apostles themselves and as such, this preaching is not up for grabs as just one more American or Western option that we can take of leave as our idolatrous hearts desires.
Cyprian informed his readers, “The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ.”
That participation in the messianic community places certain demands on its members is without ambiguity. The standards of godly fruit and right thinking are indeed high. That the Church has authority to look after our souls, and preserve and protect those standards is perspicuous. This was the attitude of Christ from the outset, the apostles that He appointed in the beginning and it continued in the fathers down to recent times.
Post-modern religious moralists have created a term for conservatives who have a high view of Scripture. That term is bibliolatry. I realize I will be accused of poisoning the well by framing it this way. So be it. Jesus and the apostles had the highest view of Scripture and as mentioned above, the messianic community is obligated to follow the standard set forth by our founder and His chosen leaders. For its first millennium and more, the church affirmed and practiced the supreme authority of Scripture. [Allison, Historical Theology, 79]
Calvin wrote, “At any rate, there is no doubt that firm certainty of doctrine was engraved in their hearts, so that they were convinced and understood that what they had learned proceeded from God. For by his Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever, a faith that should be superior to all opinion.” [Calvin, Institutes, V-I, 71] And this is precisely what we are dealing with. The mere opinions of the young and inexperienced who have grown up in Sunday School or who are fresh out of seminary and have cast aside the boring stuff of doctrine in preference for the seeker-sensitive, emergent-driven desire for relevance. The Church is “out of touch” with its stodgy old doctrines and legalistic standards, we hear. In addition, entrance into the messianic community requires faith. And faith can only come through the authoritative word of God! Hence, admission into the community begins with Christ’s word and His gift of faith that comes through that word. Any attempt to harm Scripture is an attempt to interfere with the very prerequisite for admission into the community they are supposedly trying to improve.
In John 8:47, Jesus said, “He who is of God hears God word; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” Those who refuse to hear God’s word do so because they are not of God. Conservative Christians and especially academics must resist the urge to soften Christ’s words in this regard. We do not do humanity any favors by allowing them to go on thinking they are fine when even our Lord has indicated they surely are not!
Titus 2:6, Paul commands young men to be exercise sound judgment about matters, to be an example of good deeds, with purity of doctrine, dignified or fitting behavior that commands respect because it gives no cause for the contrary. Young men are to be sound in speech, which means not only accurate in teaching, but useful speech as well. In other words, avoid nonsense and wasteful talk. The idea is to protect the messianic community from attacks of antagonists. The point here is an attitude of submission to the commands of Titus, the leader. Without an authoritative structure in place, such instructions would simply be acts of wishful thinking.
Hebrews 13:17 instructs us to submit to those who are over us in the Lord. Yet, young evangelicals would prefer to challenge not only issues that have been settled for centuries, but the very structure the Lord has put in place. This is not a matter of honest inquiry, as some would like to cleverly frame the issue. Such framing is nothing more than rebellion cloaked in a false humility. It is an issue of rebellion borne from an idolatrous heart desiring radical autonomy.
We are to submit to one another in the fear of Christ. This fear of Christ is related to a godly reverence for the Author and Finisher of our faith. There can be little reverence where there is no regard for His teachings and views. Hence, the way we submit to one another in the fear of Christ is by humbly helping one another submit to all He said and did.
Submission to one another within the messianic community is a very serious matter. Humility is an indispensable Christian virtue. One could rightly say that humility is a sine qua non for the Christian. To be a disciple of Christ, a truly and fully devoted student of the Master is to lose yourself in Him. Following Jesus as a disciple means the unconditional sacrifice of your entire life to Him. This means every part of your life. Only when you have bound yourself to someone fully and completely in order to acquire his or her practical and theoretical knowledge can you truly be said to be a disciple. The language of submission is laced throughout the entire NT. The structure of the Church, that is, the messianic community, is one based on authority and submission. It begins with the self-attesting authority of God’s word. This word was legislated to us through the law and the prophets and most recently through the holy apostles of our Lord and Master. These men, specially called by God to perform a very unique function, legislated the final revelation of God Himself through the person of Jesus Christ in the pages of sacred Scripture. Having established apostolic churches in the beginning, their tradition, namely, Scripture itself, has been preserved and passed down to the Church over the past 2,000 years. It is the duty of the Church to recognize these teachings and indoctrinate her members thoroughly with them for they are the very words that save and preserve the souls of those members.
No small part of the current state among young evangelicals can be traced to the crisis of authority that took place during the renaissance. That generation’s desire to throw off the shackles of authority, or tradition, and of what was beginning to be viewed as superstition, was indeed quite strong. This movement of course would clash with religion so much so that Luther showed great contempt for philosophy and especially for Aristotle. He called Aristotle’s Ethics ‘the vilest enemy of grace.’ Luther understood the danger that such thinking posed for the Church. Luther faced a dilemma of no small measure. The shackles of the illegitimate authority of a contradictory tradition had to be replaced with one modelled according to Christ. Medieval Philosophers recognized that their claim to unaided reason could not establish the nature of the divine attributes, the content of divine commands, or the immortality of the human soul. This skepticism was due to the underlying commitment to the authority of the Church, and the expression of the Christian tradition. The reformation helped to subjugate the authority of the Church once more to the authority of Scripture alone. However, the philosophical consequences moved in another direction. Philosophy moved toward the authority of the man, the authority of unaided human reason. Luther sought to replace illegitimate authority with legitimate authority while the philosophers seized the opportunity to move beyond and seek a new authority altogether. And this sets the stage for our current crisis among young evangelicals.
When we add to this the influence of the deconstructionism of Derrida, and the new school of post-modernism and a Church that is increasingly predisposed to the philosophies of men than it has been to the teachings of Christ, you have the idyllic formula for a considerable crisis of authority. In addition, American thinkers are more susceptible to these philosophies than most due to the ideas deeply entrenched in the capitalistic expressions of American politics and economics. This sets the stage for the individual, not the group. Life becomes an individual dream for the individual pursuer. Christianity is transformed from a selfless society of Christ-followers into “your best life now.” Science, reason, and experience converge to convince young evangelicals that not only can they be whatever they want to be, so too can God, Christ, Scripture, and yes, the Church. Submission, having been entirely eclipsed by the autonomy of the individual has become such a foreign virtue that even its suggestion is met with sneers, disdain, and immediate dismissal. For this reason, young evangelicals feel completely at liberty to do with divine things what they have done with everything else: they have it their way. And who stands in their way to correct them? Since they have grown up in a Church that abandoned the idea of discipline and discipleship long ago, no one will correct them. The minute you try, you are dismissed as outdated, old-fashioned, unscientific, unsophisticated, and worse, a fanatic.
The only answer for the messianic community, the Church of Christ, is to shift her focus to her sole authority and to begin the slow, steady, agonizing process of returning to an unflinching loyalty to the Word of Christ handed down to her from the apostles and to correct or excommunicate any and all who would deny her the right to be what she is by divine call: the group of people called out of darkness into the glorious light of Christ who share the teachings, values, and presence of God in community together, unified in one body, that is the Church.
 New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 18:18.
 Tertullian, "The Prescription Against Heretics", trans. Peter Holmes In , in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 252.
 Cyprian of Carthage, "On the Unity of the Church", trans. Robert Ernest Wallis In , in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume V: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 423.